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Heart Rate Zones: Which One Should I Be Training In?

Heart Rate Zones: Which One Should I Be Training In? Taking a look at the 5 heart rate zones and their benefits for specific training.

When we talk about heart rate training zones, what we are describing and measuring is the intensity at which your body is using an aerobic metabolism system to produce energy from fat and glycogen (glucose that serves as a form of energy storage in animals, fungi, and bacteria. It is the main storage form of glucose in the human body).

How do I know my max heart rate?

This can be done by performing a movement at a high intensity (as hard as you can possibly go) for 1 minute. Air bikes, ski ergs, bike ergs, rowers are just a few pieces of equipment that can be used to achieve this quickly. Immediately following the 1 minute of effort count your heart beat for the next 30 seconds and multiply it by 2. For example, 89 beats in 30 seconds, 89 x 2 = 179 beats per minute (bpm)

You can also estimate your maximum heart rate based on your age. To estimate your maximum age-related heart rate, subtract your age from 220. For example, for a 50-year-old person, the estimated maximum age-related heart rate would be calculated as 220 – 50 years = 170 beats per minute (bpm)

Zone 1

50 - 60% Heart rate max

Also known as the “‘recovery zone’. When training at this intensity, you should be able to easily carry on a conversation with your training partner. Zone 1 is basically your everyday living, walking around, not doing anything overly active

Zone 2

60 - 70% Heart rate max

Think of it as going for a jog while you can still hold a conversation – somewhere between 60-70% of your maximum heart rate. The purpose behind Zone 2 training is to be able to sustain a pace just below your aerobic threshold for 30+ minutes. Typically the lowest zone for training.

What are the benefits of Zone 2 workouts?

Training in Zone 2 contributes to a number of things!!

  • Higher cardiac output and lower resting heart rate!

  • Increased VO2 max

  • Increases the ability to sustain a higher percentage of your aerobic capacity without the build up of nasty lactic acid.

  • Helps your body learn to use fat more efficiently as a fuel source, which then helps to preserve glycogen stores for use during bursts of higher intensity. (Also helps with body composition).

  • Help to bring your body into a more parasympathetic state which in turn decreases your sympathetic drive and allows you to rest and recover more effectively.

  • Increased endurance performance.

Heart Rate Training Zone 3

70-80% of Heart Rate Max

You tend to be at approximately a 7 out of 10 on the perceived exertion scale, and if you’re looking at it from a talking standpoint, you’re probably exercising at a pace where you can give just short 1-2 word answers. If you’re talking heart rate, we’re working at approximately 70-80% of your Max HR.

The reason many experts in endurance consider this the “dreaded gray zone” is because there’s evidence to suggest that you aren’t really getting a whole lot of benefit out of it, from a long endurance standpoint. You’re typically going too hard to get the benefits of Zone 2 and you aren’t quite going at what would be considered a “race pace”, so you aren’t getting those benefits either.

Once you’ve bumped out of the Zone 2 pace and into Zone 3, you are starting to work above a comfortable aerobic pace, and are starting to create lactate response in your body, thus making recovery slower.

What are the benefits of Zone 3 workouts?

Now, that said, there are some benefits to being in Zone 3, such as making more moderate efforts seem easier. i.e. If you run a 5k at a Zone 3 pace, the next time you run it at a Zone 2 pace it will feel even easier. Another benefit to being in Zone 3 is that it can help to improve your anaerobic threshold – meaning that you can gain the ability to workout at higher intensities for a longer amount of time.

When it boils down to it, just know the type of athlete that you are. If you’re someone who needs drastic improvement on aerobic capacity, then a little more Zone 2 work is recommended for you in conjunction with the typical Zone 4 and even 5 work that CrossFit tends to lead to. If you’re someone who’s an LSD guru – not the drug…long slow distance – yet you struggle with higher intensity workouts, it’s probably recommended you incorporate a little bit of Zone 3 work into your diet so as to improve your anaerobic threshold.

Regardless, it is ok to train on occasion in Zone 3. It’s not going to hinder the progress of someone wanting to live a fit lifestyle.

Heart Rate Training Zone 4

80-90% of Heart Rate Max

We’ve crossed into “The Threshold Zone” where we get up to about 80-90% of our max heart rate. Most experts consider this a “race pace” zone and in this zone we’re looking at about an 8-9/10 on the rate of perceived exertion scale. Because of that level of effort, it is unlikely that you would be able to sustain this for any longer than 1 hour. Think 1 word answers while breathing heavily. You’ve now crossed over from aerobic work into beginning down the pathway of anaerobic work!

What are the benefits of Zone 4 workouts?

  • Your body will begin burning through carbohydrates rapidly in this zone

  • You will boost your lactate threshold

  • Zone 4 will teach the body to tolerate lactate better

  • Training at a higher intensity helps to prepare for competition-type settings

  • Zone 4 can help to boost your anaerobic capacity (the total amount of energy from the anaerobic (without oxygen) energy systems, that is the combined amount of output for the ATP, phospho-creatine and lactic acid systems)

  • It utilizes more muscle fibers, which can help to build mitochondria in fast twitch fibers

    • Your muscles will start to feel heavy and like you’re getting pretty pumped up when you reach this phase

Heart Rate Training Zone 5

90-100% of Heart Rate Max

The last of the zone’s will be talking about, is the 5th and final zone. It is the point where you are at, or just about to hit, the redline phase. Think of it this way, if you can still speak, or see clearly, you’re not in Zone 5. When we hit zone 5 we’re looking at about a 10 or maybe even 11 on a scale of 1-10 when it comes to rate of perceived exertion. This zone is reserved for short bursts, think of it like Usain Bolt destroying everyone in the 100 or 200 meter dash. We have fully hit, and passed, the lactate threshold and you will likely only be able to sustain this pace for a VERY short duration.

Here’s one: 40 seconds max calories on the Assault Bike. If that doesn’t leave you on the ground rethinking what the hell you just did, you didn’t reach Zone 5. Ever finish one of those and wonder why your legs won’t work? That’s because Zone 5 is purely lactic. You’re fully anaerobic in this phase and at this intensity massive amounts of lactic acid is getting pushed into your muscles that cannot be utilized. Eventually your muscles get so pumped that you are forced to slow down.

What are the benefits of Zone 5 workouts?

To begin with, Zone 5 focuses primarily on maximum speed and output. Just like Zone 4, you are strengthening your muscles, increasing power, and building up mitochondria in your fast twitch muscles. This zone also trains our body to buffer or withstand high lactate acidosis, as well as teach it to re-synthesize lactic acid. In other words, training with high levels of lactic acid in your body teaches it to learn to adapt and buffer it out of your system.

Understanding and incorporating the five heart rate zones into your training can be a game-changer for your cardiovascular health and fitness. Whether you're aiming to improve endurance, strength, or overall wellness, there's a zone that can help you reach your goals. So, get your heart rate monitor, calculate your zones, and embark on a journey towards a healthier, smarter, fitter you.


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